Parlour Games

I read a novel a long time ago where the characters played a parlour game at a dinner party.  Each player took it in turns to name a prominent work of literature that they had never read and they scored a point for every other person who had read the book. The protagonist won with ‘Hamlet’ and was fired the next day from his teaching position in the English department of a university.

We tried a similar game at work today.

“Which prominent claim of mainstream science do you think is bullshit?”

To reduce the chances of being fired tomorrow, let me first acknowledge that I know I am a crank with this claim. I don’t think I’m as far into the rough as climate science deniers or anti-vaxxers but I know that I am certainly off the fairway. But still…I think the mainstreamers are fooling themselves.

My understanding is that mainstream nutrition science would claim that, when you lose a lot of weight, your body somehow adapts to its new weight and requires less energy. Therefore it gets harder and harder to lose weight because your body has some kind of memory of what it used to weigh and tries to get back to that. This is why most diets don’t work (according to mainstream science).

A stronger version of the theory claims that if you gain weight again after losing a lot, it gets harder to lose weight the second time around because the body “remembers” what it used to weigh and tries to get back to it.

I think this is bullshit because it either requires that my body either a) violate the laws of thermodynamics or b) it requires me to believe that my body chooses to run inefficiently—and burns energy promiscuously—until the day that you start getting somewhere with your diet. On that day, your body switches to “efficient” mode and decides to use less energy.

Sounds fishy to me.

I’m an acolyte of John Walker’s Hacker’s Diet. Mr Walker says it’s useful to think of your body like a closed system where calories come in as food and drink and calories are burned or otherwise exit your system as “solids”.

Here’s Mr Walker:

when it comes to gaining and losing weight, the human body is remarkably akin to a rubber bag. Fad diets and gimmick nutritional plans obscure this simple yet essential fact of weight control: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Here’s your body, reduced to a rubber bag.

To determine whether you’ll gain or lose weight—whether the rubber bag will grow or shrink—just take the number of calories in, what you eat, and subtract the number of calories you burn. If the number’s positive, you’re eating too much and the excess calories will stay in the bag; you’ll gain weight. If the result is negative, you’re burning more calories than you’re putting in; the bag will shrink as the reserves stored in fat cells are drawn down to meet the body’s energy needs; you’ll lose weight.

I acknowledge that your body might adapt to starvation conditions by trying to conserve energy in the short term but, in the long term,

calorie excess = calories in – calories out

and the excess is turned into fat at the rate of 3500 kCal/lb.

It is true that it’s harder to lose weight when you are very hungry—but that’s a failure of will, not a suspension of the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s also true (probably) that losing too much weight too quickly can backfire but, again, that’s because you weaken your will, not because your body mysteriously decides to run more efficiently.

It might sound like I am blaming people who fail to lose weight for a lack of will and that’s exactly what I am doing but… take comfort! According to Schopenhauer, it’s not your fault!

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

The secret to losing weight is to use Jiu-Jitsu on your will. Don’t do anything to cause your will to falter (like losing weight too fast) and don’t keep the beer or the Doritos within easy reach for those inevitable occasions when your will WILL fail.

As I said, this is all crank science and you shouldn’t believe a word of it. Mainstream nutrition science says that when your body starts to lose weight, it gets more efficient so it gets harder to lose weight. I say “Bullshit!”

In next week’s edition edition of Crank Science, we’ll explore whether it’s more likely that 90% of the universe is made of the mysterious and undetectable “dark matter” or that astrophysicists didn’t calibrate their instruments right.

POSTSCRIPT

Lots of feedback in the comments, so I’ll clarify my argument a little.

I’m well aware that smaller bodies require less energy than larger ones. I don’t dispute that.

I’m also aware that if you cut your calorie intake below a certain level, your body goes into starvation mode and burns less energy as it tries to keep you alive. I don’t know the exact details of how this works but it sounds plausible and I don’t dispute it.

I was not previously aware of The Biggest Loser thing but I just read an article about it in the New York Times. This is exactly what I am talking about:

“you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”

I’ve heard this many times from many different people who accept it as truth.

More from the article:

“But what obesity research has consistently shown is that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies, which muster hormones and an altered metabolic rate to pull them back to their old weights, whether that is hundreds of pounds more or that extra 10 or 15 that many people are trying to keep off.”

A diagram makes the point more forcefully.

The idea that your body just decides to operate more efficiently when you have lost a lot of weight sounds completely implausible to me but, I have been told on many occasions, this is what the science says.

Dr. Rosenbaum agreed. “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.,” he said.

The last part of the article shares a more likely explanation.

Slower metabolisms were not the only reason the contestants regained weight, though. They constantly battled hunger, cravings and binges. The investigators found at least one reason: plummeting levels of leptin. The contestants started out with normal levels of leptin. By the season’s finale, they had almost no leptin at all, which would have made them ravenous all the time. As their weight returned, their leptin levels drifted up again, but only to about half of what they had been when the season began, the researchers found, thus helping to explain their urges to eat.

I can completely understand that it’s harder to resist food when you’ve just lost a lot of weight. This is what I was alluding to when I quoted Schopenhauer above and what I mean when I say that losing weight is a matter of will: Hunger hormones sabotage your will; they don’t change the laws of thermodynamics.

A final word about Mr Cahill. This is just nuts:

Before the show began, the contestants underwent medical tests to be sure they could endure the rigorous schedule that lay ahead. And rigorous it was. Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him.

Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day.

There’s no way you can sustain that kind of exercise regime. I am comfortable with a 250 calories per day deficit. A good friend of mine has a 1000 cal/day deficit that he has sustained for months. 2,500 calories per day is madness and it’s no surprise to me that:

Mr. Cahill knew he could not maintain his finale weight of 191 pounds. He was so mentally and physically exhausted he barely moved for two weeks after his publicity tour ended. But he had started a new career giving motivational speeches as the biggest loser ever, and for the next four years, he managed to keep his weight below 255 pounds by exercising two to three hours a day. But two years ago, he went back to his job as a surveyor, and the pounds started coming back.

And here’s my argument in a nutshell:

His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.

 

Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.

 

Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

school-of-life

From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.

jerusalem

The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.

justrememberthatyourestandingonaplanetthatsevolving_8a5e63b457bb2df93d8fdcb65ff4a87a

Ceremonial Shintoism

My guilty pleasure is reading Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. I’ve been reading him for well over ten years. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop but I just couldn’t leave him alone.

Rod’s blog is addictive because, while his worldview is so foreign to me, he is a smart, (usually) fair commentator on contemporary mores and he often challenges the way I think about society. Part of the attraction is the civility of the folks who regularly comment on his blog. You won’t find a more diverse commentariat anywhere on the internet. Rod’s comment section includes the usual smattering of liberals and conservatives but he also has socialists and white supremacists muslims and gays and even a handful of folks who think that western civilisation has been doomed since the reformation. But they are (almost) all smart and eloquent and utterly unable to see each other’s point of view. It’s must-read internet for me.

A running theme, chez Rod, for the last couple of years, is that The West has given up believing in all the things that sustain a civilisation. In particular, it has given up on traditional Christianity and will—any day now—start persecuting Christians like it was AD 64. Rod is writing a book about how Christians need to start preparing for the day that Christians are fired for traditional Christian beliefs (for Rod, this is usually code for Christian sexual ethics—no gay marriage, no transexuals in the girl’s toilet, etc). Christianity, according to Rod, has largely vanished from most of Europe and it’s only a matter of time until it suffers the same fate in America.

Even though I do not believe the supernatural claims of Christianity, I am largely sympathetic to the Christian project. For all its mistakes in the past, Christianity has and continues to contribute a great deal to society. I think we’ll be worse off without it and I have an interest in helping sustain a tradition that has been an important component of European society for two thousand years.

Rod and his fellow travellers have a ‘with us or against us’ mentality regarding religion. According to this way of thinking, if you are not a traditional Christian (liberal Christian congregations like Anglicans or Lutherans don’t count) you are probably just waiting for your chance to start persecuting Christians the way that Christians used to persecute everyone else in the bad old days.

To the contrary, I think there’s a tiny minority of potential persecutors and a much bigger tranche of sympathetic atheists who have no desire to persecute anyone as long as Christians aren’t trying to get any special privileges in the halls of power.

I have often wondered whether there is a deal to be had between Christians and the folks who think Christianity is a net positive to society even if they don’t necessarily believe the supernatural claims.

For the sake of this thought experiment, we’ll pick a flavour of religion to be adopted by society. Rod happens to be Eastern Orthodox but I think we could make it work with Catholicism or Anglicanism or any non-virulent strain of religious tradition.

In our new established church, the true believers will be free to practice their religion freely. The rest of us will be free to respectfully attend the ceremonies (or not; there will be no coercion), support the clergy, say the prayers and enjoy the benefits of religious community but there would be no obligation or expectation that anyone believe the truth of the religion’s historical claims. In return, the church will agree to baptise us, marry us and bury us but there would be a background assumption that most of the congregation values the religious practices more than they subscribe to the religious beliefs.

The church is free to preach traditional beliefs and may reject or expel from the church community anyone who does not conform to the required practices. The church has no special authority over civil laws or vice versa. Single sex marriage is still the law of the land, for example, but the church is free to exclude gay married priests  or refuse to conduct same sex weddings if that’s what traditional teaching requires.

Would Christians welcome these respectful unbelievers into their church or would they rather we stay away?

I was prompted to write by this wonderful article on religion in Japan.

https://aeon.co/essays/can-religion-be-based-on-ritual-practice-without-belief

This quote stood out for me:

The disparity between common Japanese religious practices and belief-centric views of religion was again brought into relief when a prominent psychology professor from the US, who was temporarily visiting my lab in Japan, encountered the domestic co-existence of Buddhist and Shinto altars. Most traditional family homes in Japan house both a Buddhist altar to honour deceased relatives (butsudan) and a Shinto altar, called a god-shelf (kami-dana), to bring blessings. This pluralistic practice goes largely unremarked upon by Japanese people, but it can be striking for those from more exclusive religious backgrounds. When the US professor learned of the practice, he turned to a Japanese colleague and asked if he had two altars in his home. Yes, at his family’s house, he answered. The professor asked in astonishment which of the two systems, if either, was the one that he really believed in. My Japanese colleague was puzzled. ‘Neither,’ he said, and then clarified: ‘…or maybe both!’ He had never really thought much about whether he believed in altars before, he explained.

It seems to me that Japan has found the right balance between traditional practices and modern belief systems and I wonder if we couldn’t find a similar balance here in the West.

I wonder what you think.

 

I Will Shoot Your Dog

madonna signI’ve been visiting the breathtakingly beautiful campsite at Mount Madonna at least twice a year for twenty years now. It really is a magnificent campsite.

When Silicon Valley is so hot as to be unbearable, the shade of the finest coastal redwoods will help you find your cool. There are no critters to raid your food larder and biting things are vanishingly rare. If you are fortunate, you’ll be blessed with a visit by a passing deer—we saw more than a few this weekend—and the rangers are unfailingly polite and welcoming.

Mount MadonnaAt least, they have been polite and welcoming for the previous twenty years but, this year, there’s a new sheriff in town.

For the last ten summers, I’ve headed out to Mount Madonna with 20 or so of my friends.  We bring stacks of geeky board games (Settlers of Catan is a perennial favourite but Puerto Rico has been the must-play game for many a year now) and a couple of kegs of homebrew beer and we dress like pirates for the weekend. We come from all over California—mostly Santa Cruz and San Jose but a few hardy souls come from Placerville, Auburn and beyond and several make the long trek from Los Angeles.

A good time for us wannabe pirates is a big pot-luck supper, a few beers and some songs around the campfire. For reasons lost in the mists of time, our go-to song is Total Eclipse of the Heart and we gave our finest rendition at about 10PM on Friday night. You’ve never heard Turn around, Bright Eyes sung with such feeling.

We were done with singing and and were just starting our first game of Liar’s Dice when we noticed the mysterious, armed strangers walking into our campsite. There were three of them. It was the sheriff and two rangers.

Mount MadonnaNow, if you’ve ever been camping and been a little bit rowdy, you know you can expect a visit from the rangers. The group campsite at Mount Madonna is a long way from the family campsites but voices carry and not everyone loves Bonnie Tyler. We expected the usual routine – “Please keep it down—other people are trying to sleep.” “Yessir! We’ll keep it down! Thank you!” “You folks have a great weekend!” but this time it was different.

The sheriff and his posse looked as though they’d been positioned by Quentin Tarantino. They stood in a triangle with legs wide akimbo about 30 yards away with their flashlights illuminating just their legs. The sheriff had his hand on his gun.

The two most respectable of our number went down to politely enquire what the problem was—expecting the usual friendly exhortation about keeping the noise down—but the sheriff went for maximum confrontation.

You are making too much noise and it looks like some of you have been drinking. You have dogs off the leash and I feel threatened. If any of your dogs approach us, I will shoot them. This is not your home and you need to keep quiet.

To be fair to the sheriff, we did have dogs and none of them were on the leash. One was a cockapoo tucked into my sweater for warmth. Another was a Jack Russell sleeping under the bench and the third was a fat, lazy black lab, curious who the strangers were, who has never intimidated anyone above the age of 18 months old.

Now, we campers are all middle class and middle aged and our version of The Talk that black parents give their sons goes like this:

The police are on your side. They keep you safe from some very bad people. They do a difficult and dangerous job and they deserve your respect. Always be polite and respectful and you have nothing to fear from them.

But this sheriff rewarded our respect with

I will shoot your dog.

Maybe we misjudged.

It seems trite and petty to complain that the rangers at Mount Madonna campground would threaten to shoot our dogs when so many bad things have happened this week but I really feel that the Santa Clara Parks Department need to review their procedures. The polite, respectful approach of years past was always so effective, I wonder what prompted them to go for the maximum escalation, maximum confrontation approach this time?

America is a gunI lay awake late into the night on Friday with a poem playing over and over in my head. I feel almost guilty appropriating these moving lines when there are so many tragic events unfolding elsewhere in the country. But, as a visitor from the land of the Cup of Tea where the policemen don’t even carry guns, I feel it captures the essence of our little story quite well.

America is a Gun
by Brian Bilston

England is a cup of tea.
France, a wheel of ripened brie.
Greece, a short, squat olive tree.
America is a gun.

Brazil is football on the sand.
Argentina, Maradona’s hand.
Germany, an oompah band.
America is a gun.

Holland is a wooden shoe.
Hungary, a goulash stew.
Australia, a kangaroo.
America is a gun.

Japan is a thermal spring.
Scotland is a highland fling.
Oh, better to be anything
than America as a gun.

cup of tea

To the Left!

I’ve always struggled with the words progressive and liberal.

In America at least, liberal seems to mean so many different things to different people that it doesn’t seem to mean anything at all. I have no idea what progressive  means at all.

Interfluidity has a handy-dandy chart that attempts to sort lefties into useful categories.
Progressives vs Liberals
While I am sympathetic to, for example, the goals of Black Lives Matter, and mindful of the fact that, in my friend’s memorable phrase, “It’s harder to move through the world” if you don’t have a particular genital configuration or skin colour, I’ve long believed that identity politics is poisonous to social discourse and is at least partially responsible for Trump, UKIP and worse.
Universalists want group identity to become less salient and consequential, and so resist tactics that highlight difference in order to promote intragroup solidarity and to sow open conflict with other groups. Identity-centered activists view solidarity and conflict as the best and perhaps only way to overcome identity-distributed oppression. To a universalist, tactics like “no platforming” sow precisely the sort of divisions we ought to be working to overcome. To an identity-centered activist, “no platforming” an apologist for racism or sexual violence is just winning..
Put me down firmly for universalist and allow me to claim Dr King for my side.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The other axis is more difficult to place myself on.
“Classical liberals” and the people sometimes referred to as neoliberals don’t challenge the existence of large, consequential differences between rich and poor. They seek to remedy what is oppressive in economic stratification by putting a humane floor beneath the consequences of being sorted downwards, and by working to ensure that the sorting is “fair”. They tend to promote equality of opportunity and emphasize education as a solution.
I have long believed that runaway inequality is the biggest threat to American democracy. I believe that the game is rigged and that a handful of millionaires and billionaires have hijacked the apparatus of government and found a way to pretend that 47% of the population are moochers and parasites.
According to the chart’s economic axis, my fear of runaway inequality is incompatible with my deep-seated understanding that meritocracy and rewarding success are vital to a flourishing society. I don’t see them as in opposition to each other.
Strategically, I am a Classical Liberal but, practically, I think we need to reign in the power-grabbing plutocrats and find ways to ensure that Warren Buffet pays more tax than his secretary.
The author of interfluidity seems to struggle with this too.
The diagram above summarizes the differences as I see them among US liberal-to-left factions. Note that these are questions of more or less, not absolutes. I’d place myself in the “universalist left”, for example, but I do believe that some degree of economic stratification is legitimate and necessary, under economists’ usual rationale of preserving incentives to produce. I just think that the degree of economic stratification that currently prevails is way, way, way, way, way past the point where benefits of sharp incentives to produce are undone by even sharper incentives to cheat and outweighed by destructive social fragmentation.
As far as I can tell, the author’s self-diagnosis is the same as mine, but he wants put himself in the bottom left quadrant. I’m pretty sure I’m up in the top left.

Levi Stubbs Tears

I’ve been a Billy Bragg fan since I saw him at the Portsmouth Guildhall in ’86 and I’ve terrorized my family and friends by singing his songs ever since.

Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy

My best Billy Bragg memories include teaching Train Train to Dylan when we lived in New York. He was only a year old and he used to finish the chorus for me “Train! Train!…Hurry bring my baby back again!”.

Brewing Up with Billy Bragg

I was cornered by an Old Etonian and an Old Harrovian for singing There is Power in a Factory  in the showers at BRNC Dartmouth. They’d never met a Labour supporter before.

Talking with the Taxman about Poetry

The night before I was due to see Billy at the Guildhall, Rob and I saw him being arrested on the Nine O’Clock News for breaking into the nuclear base at Greenham Common. Billy was released in time though and he was brilliant. Ted Hawkins was his warm up act and I bought all of Ted’s albums too.

Levi Stubb’s Tears is one my favourites and I’ve wanted to learn it since I got my first guitar. This is the first song I’ve recorded in a couple of years and I’m a bit rusty. Was fun to play though.

I decided that the song needed a bit of a video to go with it so I spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering through Flickr’s Creative Commons gallery looking for images and cramming them together in iMovie (iMovie sucks).

 

This one’s for Stan (2)

I had a very pleasant chat with the guys on my football team after the game today. After the third beer the topic turned to politics and I made some claims that my teammates thought were outrageous. I promised to back them up.

First claim: Net Migration from Mexico under Obama is Zero

The specific point that Stan made was that under President Obama, immigration from Mexico was out of control. I said that net migration from Mexico under President Obama was zero.

Here’s the data (from Politifact):

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The chart shows that the number of Mexicans living in California has stayed more or less the same under President Obama. I make no claims as to whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s a fact.

Second Claim: The number of deportations under President Obama has gone up.

Again, I’m not expressing an opinion on whether deportations are a good thing or a bad thing. I was merely countering the claim that President Obama’s was not enforcing the immigration laws.

Here’s the data (from Pew Research):

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Third Claim: Deficits are more likely to go down under Democratic presidents

My conservative friends were under the impression that the debt increases more under Democratic presidents. I’m on dodgier ground with this one because of recent history and a lot of depends-how-you-measure-it but I will valiantly do my best to defend the claim.

Here’s the data. This first chart is from The Atlantic.

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The first thing to notice is that the debt shot up under President Reagan. The next thing to notice is the massive drop under Clinton. The situation under Obama is complicated and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. — Dick Cheney

There’s a different way to look at the numbers though that is kinder to Republicans. Let’s look at that first.

Here’s the per annum increase.

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That Reagan jump still stands out and the Clinton drop does too. But this chart accentuates the increase under Obama that really troubles Stan. What’s up with that?

Let’s drill into the Obama years. Here’s the Wall Street Journal.

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Now, we all agree that that first year was horrendous but, as we all remember, we were in the aftermath of the word financial crisis in 70 years. The numbers have improved a bit since though.

The main cause of the Obama deficit was the reduction in tax revenues caused by the recession.

deficit=revenues – spending

As before, I’m making no comment about whether or not the government should increase spending during a recession, but the data says that spending increased more, percentage-wise, under President Bush than it did under President Obama.

Here’s a Forbes article (Obama’s a Big Spender…Just Like His Predecessors) that shows some data on spending. Again, check out the massive rise in spending under Reagan and the massive drop under Clinton.

Federal-outlays-as-a-percentage-of-GDP

You probably also didn’t fail to notice the massive rise under President George W. Bush and the absolutely enormous leap in 2009. Who gets the blame for that?

Another Forbes article (Who Is The Smallest Government Spender Since Eisenhower? Would You Believe It’s Barack Obama?) says that the budget in the first year of a presidency should be credited to the previous guy.

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I think that’s going a bit too far but it does shine a bit of light on the complexity.

In summary, the data clearly shows that the deficit (and spending!) increased more under Reagan, Bush I and Bush II than it did under Clinton or Carter. Obama’s record stands or falls on whether you think the 2008/9 financial meltdown was Bush’s fault or Obama’s fault but let’s not pretend that it didn’t happen at all.

Here’s Factcheck.org with the final word,

Federal outlays for the current fiscal year are estimated to be $3.65 trillion, according to figures released in March along with the president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015. We calculate that to be just 10.1 percent higher than fiscal 2009 spending levels he inherited from George W. Bush. (Fiscal 2009 began nearly four months before Obama took office, and spending levels were mainly set by Bush. As we’ve detailed elsewhere, we attribute — at most –$203 billion of actual FY 2009 outlays to increases signed by Obama.)

That 10.1 percent increase in spending is below the nearly 12 percent rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index since Obama took office.

Obama’s increase in federal spending over five years contrasts dramatically with the 78 percent increase during Bush’s eight years.

A couple of other points came up that weren’t points of contention, but I’ll support them any way.

Claim: The number of uninsured has fallen under Obamacare.

Here’s a Gallup poll reported in Forbes (After Obamacare: Number of Uninsured Hits Five-Year Low):

Gallup-uninsured-chart

And here’s similar data from the CDC showing the 16 million people who now have insurance who didn’t before:

CDCUninsured

Now, I think Obamacare is shit. But it’s better than what came before.  Stan and I differed on whether it’s a tragedy that 9% of Americans still don’t have health care but we did agree that the USA spends too much on health care. Here’s how much too much (Health Costs: How the U.S. Compares With Other Countries on KQED).

US_spends_much_more_on_health_than_what_might_be_expected_1_slideshow

First of all, note that the US spends more on healthcare than everyone else. Second of all, note that the US Government spends more on healthcare than everyone else (except Norway and the Netherlands)!  But it doesn’t cover all the people! And does the USA get better healthcare for all this money? [SPOILER ALERT: no].

Stan said that if I could produce data to support my claims he’d reconsider his political outlook. I doubt I’ve changed his mind very much on the deficit (though it is certainly true that the deficit tends to go up more under Republicans) but I hope he will concede the facts on immigration and deportation at our next discussion 🙂

Stan?

No Dirty Tricks

My son made me watch the Democratic debate this week (a first!) and I’m glad I did. What a contrast to the Republican debate!

I love to read the reviews of debates like this and, more than any other time, I was shocked at how the media interpreted the result compared to my understanding.

My analysis first and then I’ll do a round-up of what the pundits are saying.

I don’t think debates like this are a zero-sum game, especially at this stage in the race. Each participant has different goals and it’s possible for more than one candidate to achieve their objectives. For example,

Hillary-2016-poster-43

Hillary Clinton is the front-runner by an overwhelming margin. She is unpopular within her own party and there’s a sense that she is the inevitable candidate because she is the inevitable candidate. She needed to do well enough to assure her supporters that she really is the candidate that she thinks she is; well enough to convince Biden that he would be wasting his time to join the race; and to show just enough charm and deference to Democrats further to her left that she is not a complete robot and/or tool of the plutocracy. Hillary achieved her goals.

bernie

Bernie Sanders needed to excite his supporters and to demonstrate that he is not the crazy socialist that everyone says he is. He also needed to make a good introduction to the people who are seeing him for the first time. I’m sure he knows as well as anyone that he is a long-shot but if he can move the Overton Window to the left, he is a winner. Bernie achieved his goals.

usa-election-o-malley

Martin O’Malley probably doesn’t expect to become president either but he didn’t disgrace himself. I doubt that he moved the needle on his campaign to be president but he probably made it a little bit more likely that he’ll get a post in the next Clinton administration. He’s probably content with that.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb should just stay home for the next debate. They lost.

chafee

The day after the debate, the mainstream pundits proclaimed with one voice that Hillary was the overwhelming winner and that the other candidates were a disgrace.

Hillary Clinton won. She won because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not. She won because the first Democratic presidential debate focused on liberal policies — and not her email scandal or character.” — Ron Fournier, The National Journal

“Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible.” — Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker

Clinton demonstrated that she was, by far, the best presidential candidate onstage. Indeed, she may have been the only person onstage actually running for president. […snip…] But none of them waged the kind of frontal assault that would be required to dislodge a front-runner who commands Clinton’s breadth of institutional support. — Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

The commentators on the right actually thought that the whole debate was a setup, staged to make Hillary look presidential.

The most irritating criticism though came from those voices of the center-right who have been telling us for years that there’s no virtue left in politics and that everyone just wants to get in a cheap shot or score points with sound-bites. When—finally!—there’s a debate where politicians talk about the issues, they’re all aghast at the lack of character assassination.

Here’s David Brooks on the Newshour.

…the one advantage the Republicans have is they actually, a bunch of them want to be president. On the Democratic side, only one person wants to be president. That’s Hillary Clinton.

and

But the other factor is, the Republicans are actually arguing and fighting with each other. And what I saw up there was Hillary Clinton performing extremely well, and four other guys lying down and let her, letting her have the nomination. It’s like Bernie Sanders held up the white flag of surrender when he refused to really go after her on the character and moral issue, which is his only way in. — David Brooks, The Newshour

Really, David? The only way for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, to distinguish himself from the centrist front-runner is on moral issues?

Ross Douthat was even more nakedly critical of Bernie’s hesitance to get down and dirty.

by declining to attack Clinton on the issues where she’s actually most vulnerable — issues that have driven down her numbers with swing voters these last few months, issues that make her a weaker-than-expected general-election bet — Sanders is preserving his present popularity at the expense of any possibility of actually knocking off the frontrunner, actually beating her at the polls.—Ross Douthat, NY Times

Does it not occur to them that Bernie has no interest in winning a dirty tricks campaign? Even if he doesn’t win, he can shift the debate more significantly by staying true to his principles.

Rare among the pundits, Michelle Goldberg saw this.

His statement made him look like a mensch and a man of principle, ensuring that the debate remained a surprisingly substantive exchange on the issues he cares about most, rather a GOP-style pro-wrestling match. He actually seemed less interested in taking down the front-runner than in elevating his own ideas. That’s hugely rare in a politician. Clinton supporters who want a more progressive America have reason to be grateful for her strongest challenger. — Michelle Goldberg, Slate

AlterNet points out how much Bernie’s performance did for him in the polls.

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate? Bernie Sanders by all objective measures “won” the debate. Hands down. I don’t say this as a personal analysis of the debate; the very idea of “winning” a debate is silly to me. I say this because based on the only relatively objective metric we have, online polls and focus groups, he did win. And it’s not even close. —Adam  Johnson, AlterNet

polls

Bernie did pretty well in GooglePoints too.

GoogleDemDebate

In the end though, I have to agree with Matt Yglesias.

Clinton, in short, isn’t a flawless candidate, nor did she deliver a flawless debate performance. But she doesn’t need to be flawless to win — she just needs to be better than the opposition. And against a relatively weak field, she dominated. — Matt Yglesias, Vox